It was an “I was there” game. And I was there. Ten-man Tottenham Hotspur lost 4-3 to Inter Milan in the San Siro in a Champions League group fixture in October 2010, but a star was born that night in Lombardy as Gareth Bale scored a brilliant hat-trick and Europe took notice.
“He was an individual wrecking ball against one of the most rugged defences in the world,” I wrote in my match report. “Bale is a phenomenon. A 21-year-old force of nature down the flanks.”
Bale had not even started a Premier League game until the previous January and here he was tearing apart the defence of the European champions – and did so again at White Hart Lane when the famous “Taxi for Maicon” chant was aimed at the unfortunate Inter right-back who was regarded as the world’s best in his position at the time, keeping Dani Alves out of the Brazil team.
“Now he is one of the hottest commodities in Europe,” I added. “Inter have been linked with him but others will come calling. They have to. This cannot be ignored.”
It was not ignored, of course, and it was on the final day of the summer transfer window in 2013 that Bale joined Real Madrid for a world record fee of £85million despite Manchester United’s late attempt to hijack the bid by even offering £20m more.
But back to that night. Spurs had yearned for Champions League football and for evenings like that at the San Siro which would say they had finally arrived – only to find themselves 4-0 down, humiliated and with goalkeeper Heurelho Gomes sent off. And it as not even half-time. In fact they were 3-0 down inside 14 minutes and it seemed like a routine – if damning – match to cover.
Afterwards, manager Harry Redknapp was asked what he had said during the break. “It was our worst nightmare,” he admitted. “I just said to the players ‘all we have to play for is our pride’.” They achieved more than that – and even came close to something even more famous. Bale scored his second and third goals in injury time and if there had been just a couple more minutes of play it felt like he would have salvaged a draw. At least. Inter were gone.
He was unstoppable. For his first goal he sprinted 67 yards with the ball at his feet, taking on all comers, holding off renowned defenders Javier Zanetti and Walter Samuel to beat goalkeeper Julio Cesar with a powerful low shot. Then, just inside the Inter half, he set off on another extraordinary run, again leaving Zanetti in his wake, to once more beat Cesar with his hammer of a left foot. Seconds later he was set up by Aaron Lennon to coolly complete his hat-trick with another low, drilled shot.
“A night of embarrassment turned, by one man, into a night of glorious failure,” I wrote and, of course, Spurs later revelled in beating Inter 3-1 in the return group game with Bale simply irrepressible and Redknapp hailing it as his greatest night as a manager at White Hart Lane.
They would not have done that without what Bale achieved at the San Siro where a rout became a revival and Gazzetta dello Sport hailed Bale as a “Welsh Cyclone” and urged Inter to try and sign him. As luck would have it I was due to interview Bale the next morning after the game at White Hart Lane and he arrived for the assignment – the day after the night before – and he spoke with pride at how his parents, Frank and Debbie, were at the match along with a bunch of schoolfriends who regularly travelled up from the Cardiff suburb of Whitchurch, where the Bales still lived.
“I will never forget,” he said of the reception he received from the Spurs fans and, maybe, that too has influenced his decision to want to go back. “It’s starting to come together and I want to progress as a player,” he added cautiously, with that red glow to his cheeks which betrayed his shyness. It certainly did come together for him.
By the way, Jose Mourinho, now Spurs’ head coach of course, was always one of those who marked out Bale’s potential early. In the summer of 2008 Mourinho took part in The Daily Telegraph’s fantasy football game and picked Bale, not even a first-team player, as his left-back – his first position, even if now he is one of the world’s most renowned forwards.